The Insect that Painted Europe Red (BBC)

Baroque painters used cochineal red in works, such as The Musicians (1595) by Caravaggio (Credit: Alamy)

"For many years, the most common red in Europe came from the Ottoman Empire, where the ‘Turkey red’ process used the root of the rubia plant. European dyers tried desperately to reproduce the results from the East, but succeeded only partially, as the Ottoman process took months and involved a pestilent mix of cow dung, rancid olive oil and bullocks’ blood, according to Amy Butler Greenfield in her book, A Perfect Red.

Dyers also used Brazilwood, lac and lichens, but the resulting colours were usually underwhelming, and the processes often resulted in brownish or orange reds that faded quickly. For royalty and elite, St John’s Blood and Armenian red (dating back as far as the 8th Century BCE, according to Butler Greenfield), created the most vibrant saturated reds available in Europe until the 16th Century. But, made from different varieties of Porphyrophora root parasites, their production was laborious and availability was scarce, even at the highest prices.

Mesoamerican peoples in southern Mexico had started using the cochineal bug as early as 2000 BCE, long before the arrival of the conquistadors, according to Mexican textile expert Quetzalina Sanchez. Indigenous people in Puebla, Tlaxcala and Oaxaca had systems for breeding and engineering the cochineal bugs for ideal traits and the pigment was used to create paints for codices and murals, to dye cloth and feathers, and even as medicine." -Devon Van Houten Maldonado

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